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In Bourbonnais, Ill., where the Bears sweat through their summer work at Olivet Nazarene University, roughly an hour due south of Chicago. I've visited Bourbonnais four or five times over the years, and it always seems to be the hottest, stickiest stop on my camp tour. Form held on Tuesday, when the Bears slogged through a sweltering 2½ hour practice in front of their always vocal fans. Bears head coach Lovie Smith, wearing a long-sleeve athletic shirt, called it almost "fall-like weather,'' which prompted me to wonder where exactly he spends his autumns?
1. The Bears believe Mike Martz will again bring out the best in Roy Williams. And there is some history to support that theory. In 2006 in Detroit, Williams had his career year while Martz was the Lions offensive coordinator, catching 82 passes for 1,310 yards (tied for third in the league) and making his only Pro Bowl trip. No wonder Williams quickly signed a low-risk, one-year, $2.5 million deal in Chicago, where his old University of Texas receivers coach, Darryl Drake, happens to be the Bears receivers coach.
"The thing about Martz, man, he believes in his players,'' Williams told me. "If I get on a roll and he sees I'm hot, I just give him the sign, 'Let's keep it going,' and he keeps it going. I'm just very comfortable in his offense.''
Williams will man the X receiver position in Martz's offense, which is the high-profile role Torry Holt played under Martz in St. Louis. "He's the guy who gets singled up a lot, and a lot of big plays go to that guy,'' Martz said. "That guy is going to have 1,300 yards and 80-85 catches, and we know Roy's got that in him. He's just now at the peak of his career. I don't know what happened in Dallas. But it doesn't make any difference to me. It doesn't change how I feel.''
Williams is confident that a career renaissance is at hand, and that he's the big receiver the Bears have been searching for. "I didn't come here to sit on the bench,'' he said. "I didn't come here to feed everybody water. I came here to play ball and help this team get one game further than last year, to the Super Bowl.''
2. Matt Forte's contract extension is on the front burner for the Bears, with a goal of having something done before the regular season opener. Forte seems cautiously optimistic the Bears will extend him and not make him play for $550,000 in the final year of his rookie deal. That's why he chose to report to camp on time and not go the holdout route. But the Bears always seek something of a hometown discount when it comes to contract extensions, arguing that the player is not yet in the unrestricted free-agent market and that there's always some inherent injury risk they incur by not letting the contract play itself out. The fourth-year running back is a clear priority for Chicago after last year's strong second half, and I'd be surprised if the two sides can't find enough common ground to strike a new deal in the coming month.
3. Chicago is suddenly one of the league's hot spots when it comes to offering a change of scenery. The Bears last week snatched up three former top 10 picks who disappointed in their most recent NFL venues: Williams (seventh overall in 2004), ex-Texans defensive tackle Amobi Okoye (10th in 2007) and former Jets bust of a defensive end Vernon Gholston (sixth in 2008). All got modest one-year deals, and the chance to remake themselves.
While Williams came to town to rejoin Martz, both Gholston and Okoye had similar motivation. Both wanted to try to make something of their career under the tutelage of Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, one of the best defensive line teachers in the game. "These guys are betting on themselves,'' Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "They were worth taking a shot on.''
Gabe Carimi, tackle. The Bears' offensive line issues still keep everyone up at night in these parts, but Mike Tice has a pretty good new building block to play with in first-round pick Gabe Carimi. The ex-Wisconsin Badger (he wore a Brewers T-shirt to lunch on Tuesday and it was noticed by some Cubs fans in the area) is going to start from day one at right tackle, opposite second-year left tackle J'Marcus Webb. Chicago loves Carimi's toughness and his no-nonsense make-up, and he and Webb have a chance to give the Bears bookends that could be in place for a long time.
At the moment, the rest of the line is a little bit up in the air. If newly acquired center Chris Spencer can beat out veteran Roberto Garza, and he hasn't yet, Garza will slide back to his starting right guard slot, ahead of Lance Louis. Chicago's 2008 first-round pick Chris Williams is barely hanging on to the top slot at left guard, but Louis is expected to push him for the starting job once the Garza/Spencer battle concludes.
There are plenty of choices for this category in Bears camp, but running back Marion Barber is as intriguing a selection as any. The ex-Cowboy contingent goes three deep (Williams, Barber and receiver Sam Hurd), but Barber's here to give the Chicago offense the pile-moving, short-yardage back it has lacked in recent years.
Bears coach Lovie Smith told me his own defensive players urged the team to land Barber, who's punishing running style is rather famous throughout the league. Barber also gives the Bears a little leverage in the Forte contract talks, but if that deal gets done, Chicago might opt to go with Forte and Barber as a backfield tandem, perhaps squeezing well-paid veteran running back Chester Taylor out of a roster spot.
Stringing together winning seasons hasn't been the Bears' calling card in quite some time. The 2005-2006 teams were the only clubs to top .500 back-to-back in the past 15 years, and this year's Bears again figure to be flying under the radar, despite going 11-5 and winning their way to the NFC title game last season.
We should know plenty early about Chicago, which opens at home against the tough Falcons, travels to New Orleans in Week 2, and plays host to the Super Bowl champion Packers in Week 3. A Week 5 Monday night date at Detroit (the Lions' first MNF game in years) will pose another stiff challenge. When I add it all up, it looks like an 8-8 type of year and a step back down in weight class for the defending NFC North champs.